By the autumn of 1932, when the Silver Arrow project began, the Depression was still worsening and both Pierce and Studebaker were deep in trouble.
Erskine's company had continued to pay dividends out of capital reserves, even while sales were dwindling, which forced Studebaker into receivership in 1933. Erskine resigned in despair, then committed suicide soon afterwards.
Pierce-Arrow, meanwhile, lost $3 million on sales of only $8 million in 1932, when volume plunged to 2,692 units. Like Studebaker, Pierce had underestimated the Depression's severity.
The dynamic Roy Faulkner, former president of Auburn, took over as sales vice president that fall. No sooner had he arrived in Buffalo than he received a call from a young stylist named Phil Wright, who proposed a Pierce supercar. "Why not?" we can imagine Faulkner asking himself. "Nothing else has worked. This might."
Phil Wright was still in his twenties, but he packed distinguished experience with two coachbuilders, Union City and Murphy, and with a major manufacturer, General Motors.
Wright's Silver Arrow concept originated from his time with GM's original Art & Colour Section styling department during one of the many exercises in "futuristic design" held by A&C's founder, Harley Earl.
Among Phil's contemporaries were Gordon Buehrig, whose future concept was the famous Cord 810, and John Tjaarda, who evolved his ideas into the Lincoln-Zephyr. After being laid off due to Depression budget cuts, Wright took his ideas to Pierce-Arrow with Mr. Earl's approval.
Working at home, Wright created a 1/8-scale clay model and delivered it along with his conceptual drawings to Faulkner. Enthusiastic, Faulkner endorsed the proposal with Studebaker management in South Bend, which agreed to handle development work. "Although both companies were at rock bottom, Studebaker had more design and construction talent," Wright recalled.
Wright's shape was nothing less than revolutionary. Citing it as an automotive styling landmark for Road & Track in 1955, the late designer, instructor, and critic, Strother MacMinn, wrote that the Silver Arrow was "considered by almost everyone to have been ahead of its time ... [the] first in this country with slab-sided styling [although] it suffered with compromises (such as a high frame) like many pioneers."
Compromises did indeed occur. James R. Hughes, Studebaker's chief body engineer, who handled the development, made one drastic change immediately, selecting the 139-inch Pierce-Arrow chassis instead of the 147-inch wheelbase on which Wright had based his clay model, and requisitioning a group of these chassis from Buffalo.
"This meant relocating the rear seat over the rear axle and raising the roofline," Wright commented, though it probably gave the car better proportions, with a more close-coupled look.
Out back, Hughes threw in some ideas of his own, incorporated from a rejected design for a fastback 1933 Commander created by Studebaker stylist J. Herbert Newport: an inset backlight and tapering, pointed rear fenders. The Silver Arrow was thus one of the first cars where the rear had as much styling importance as the front.
To learn more about the design of the Silver Arrow, continue on to the next page.